Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 June 2005

Nuclear-Plant Terrorism: A Solvable Problem


Last week's Time Magazine (June 20, 2005, page 34) featured a discussion of the risk of terrorism at nuclear power plants. Among the article’s principal conclusions was that nuclear plants may be insufficiently guarded and that some are poorly designed to thwart terrorist activity.

Time’s article might have two effects, one good and one bad. If it motivates Congress or the nuclear industry to take better precautions to prevent terrorism at nuclear plants, it will have served the public well. If it exacerbates the public’s already irrational fear of nuclear power, it will have done our nation a grave disservice. Among other things, it may falsely overestimate the relative merits of coal, the dirtiest fuel known to mankind.

What Time’s article did not say is that the problem of nuclear-plant terrorism can be solved. Time focused on the “political” problem of too few security guards to handle a terrorist attack of the same magnitude as occurred on September 11. But the risks of such an attack can be handled just as well by a variety of technological means. This essay discusses those means.

Terrorism at nuclear power plants presents only two risks: induced meltdown and misuse of nuclear material, most likely in an on-site “dirty bomb.” As both technical reports and the popular press have repeatedly emphasized, there is no—repeat no—risk of an atomic explosion at nuclear power plants, whether by accident or through terrorism. An atomic bomb requires special assembly, explosives, and precise triggering, and no nuclear power plant has anything like the necessary means to create one.

The risk of induced meltdown is by far the most serious real threat. A “meltdown” is a “runaway” or uncontrolled nuclear reaction, of the very same kind used to generate the heat that makes electricity. Understanding what might cause a meltdown requires understanding how nuclear fission works.

Stripped to its essence, nuclear fission is quite simple. Radioactive material used as fuel in nuclear power plants undergoes spontaneous fission, known as “radioactive decay.” At any moment a small fraction of the atoms in it split on their own, at random, without prompting. (This random splitting produces the characteristic sound of random clicks in a Geiger counter or other radiation detector.)

When an atoms splits, its produces three things: atoms of lighter elements, energy, and a neutron. The lighter elements constitute “spent” fuel. The energy eventually appears as heat, which is used to fire a turbine to make electricity. The neutron, however, is the key to the whole power-production process, for it can induce fission of other atoms before they would split on their own.

When a neutron from one splitting atom hits another atom of fuel, it can make that second atom split, too. When the second atom splits, it also produces a neutron, which can induce further splitting of a third atom, and so on. If the block of fuel is sufficiently large, this induced fusion is self sustaining, in a so-called “chain reaction.” The heat from the chain reaction produces the “fire” in a nuclear power plant, which is used to produce electricity in much the same way as heat from a coal, gas or oil fire.

The existence of a nuclear chain reaction, however, depends upon the size and weight of the fuel sample. A small amount of fuel just sits there, slowly decaying atom by atom, with no chain reaction. Only when the size and weight of the sample approach a “critical mass” will the chain reaction become self sustaining.

If the minimum critical mass of fuel is cut in half, the reaction will still continue as long as the two halves are close together. As the two halves get farther and farther apart, however, the chain reaction will weaken or die. The reason is that each half requires the neutrons emanating from the other half to sustain the chain reaction. (Since the neutrons from each half radiate in random directions, more and more neutrons from each half “miss” the other half as the two are moved apart.)

These simple facts of nuclear fusion are the basis for designing controllable nuclear power plants. The design creates or withdraws a critical mass of fuel by moving parts of the fuel (in solid form) together or apart. In some plants, operators insert rods of nuclear fuel into holes in other nuclear fuel to start the chain reaction. When they want to cool the reaction down or shut it off, they withdraw the rods to destroy the critical mass. (In other types of plants, rods of “damper” material, which absorbs neutrons with no reaction, are inserted into the fuel to slow or stop the chain reaction or withdrawn to speed it up.)

Once a chain reaction is self-sustaining, it goes on until most of the fuel’s atoms are split, i.e., until the fuel is exhausted. In the process it releases a lot of heat. When a power plant operates normally, coolant carries the heat off to a turbine or other heat engine, where it produces electricity. But suppose the flow of coolant is interrupted. What then?

If chain-reacting nuclear fuel is not cooled, it will continue to release heat and get hotter and hotter. Eventually, it will melt. (After all, the fuel is just an exotic, radioactive metal.) If the fuel continues melting and stays in the form of a critical mass as it melts, it will get so hot that it eventually will begin to vaporize itself or the material and structures around it. If nothing stops this process, the heat and vaporization will build up sufficient pressure to breach the massive containment vessel and release radioactive material into the atmosphere. Such an event is called a “meltdown;” it’s what happened at Chernobyl.

The italicized clause above, however, contains the secret for building meltdown-proof nuclear power plants. In order for a containment breach to occur, the nuclear fuel must stay concentrated in a critical mass as and after it melts. If it can be broken into small, sub-critical components as it melts, the chain reaction will stop, and the molten fuel will cool long before creating sufficient vaporization pressure to breach the containment vessel.

This is exactly what the new power plant designs do. Underneath the fuel assembly, they have channels to direct molten fuel into small, separate compartments of subcritical size. If the fuel should ever melt—whether due to an accident or to terrorist activity—the molten fuel flows into these separate compartments and becomes subcritical, thereby shutting down the chain reaction. The fuel cools harmlessly in its new, separated compartments (which have a much higher melting point than the fuel, and so stay solid), and no meltdown or containment breach occurs.

The beauty of this design is that it requires no electrical power or human intervention to stop a meltdown. All it requires is gravity, which even the most clever terrorists cannot turn off.

All new nuclear power plants can and should be built with this new meltdown- proof design. If they are, the gravest threat of both nuclear accidents and nuclear-plant terrorism—a meltdown—will simply disappear. There will be no way to induce a meltdown that leads to a containment breach short of rebuilding the plant.

That leaves the problem of currently operating plants, which do not use this clever meltdown-proof design. In Time’s estimation, some of these plants are not only susceptible to meltdown but have controls configured so that knowledgeable people (such as terrorists) can use the plant’s own controls to induce a meltdown. What can be done about them?

The first and most important point to be made is that most of these plants are nearing the end of their useful lives and must be decommissioned and rebuilt soon. The last nuclear plant built in the United States was built in the seventies, and the legal lifetime of such plants is typically 30 years, and no more than 40. When existing plants are decommissioned and rebuilt, they can and should be built according to the new, meltdown-proof design.

In the interim, there are a number of common-sense steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of a terrorist-induced meltdown at currently-existing plants nearing the end of their commercial life. Some of these steps could be taken at any regularly-scheduled maintenance shutdown. Here are only a few:
    1. Anti-meltdown hardware “interlocks.” It would be a relatively simple matter to install anti-meltdown devices in existing power plants. When the reactor core temperature or pressure gets too high, for whatever reasons, these devices would simply remove the fuel rods (or insert the damper rods) and shut the reactor down.
    These devices could be designed to be “foolproof” both by making it impossible to stop their operation manually and by giving them hidden, hardened back power that would remain in operation even, for example, if terrorists cut power from the plant itself or outside sources. They also could be made doubly or triply redundant to reduce the risk that terrorists could find and defeat them all. To insure that terrorists couldn’t simply restart the plant, these devices could prevent restarting unless (for example) de-activated by a secret code known only to regional or Washington based security headquarters, and not known to anyone at the particular plant.
    The very idea that plant operators can voluntarily induce a meltdown derives from an earlier, more innocent era. Remember, it was only beginning in the seventies, with the advent of terrorist hijackings, that airplane passengers could no longer walk directly from the ticket counter to their seats, but had to go through security. By that time, most existing nuclear power plants were already designed and built. Today’s realities demand fail-safe systems. Fortunately, those systems should not be hard to design, build and install, as nuclear power plants already have numerous means to measure reactor core temperature and pressure.
    2. Anti-terrorist technology. In addition to such hardware interlocks, modern digital computer technology provides a number of means to insure that terrorists would not be able to induce a meltdown even if they penetrated a nuclear power plant’s control room. Here are just a few ideas:

      a. A “Panic Button” could initiate a computer-controlled shutdown (managed by hidden, hardened computers with separate power backup) at the instance of plant operating personnel. The “button” could be voice activated (keyed to plant operators’ digital voice signatures) to allow for operation even while under attack.

      b. A “dead man” switch keyed to operating personnel’s voices could require periodic activation, without which the plant would automatically shut down under computer control.

      c. A sleep-inducing gas could be released into the control room under the control of security personnel, if the control room were captured or penetrated. (A less dangerous gas than the one used by the Russians to clear the Nord-Ost Theater of terrorists in Moscow could be used. Even if that same gas were used, it would likely cause fewer casualties, for the power plant’s staff would not have been starved and dehydrated for several days like the hostages in Moscow.)

The bottom line is that the risk of terrorist-induced meltdown can be virtually eliminated by technical means, even assuming that terrorist attackers could penetrate and occupy a nuclear plant’s control room. Plants built to the new design simply will not have a meltdown risk. Existing plants can—and should—be retrofitted with failsafe technology (if they haven’t already been) at the earliest opportunity, preferably the next regularly scheduled maintenance shutdown.

This leaves only one other credible risk of terrorist activity related to nuclear power plants: abuse of reactor fuel. There are typically two types of fuel at nuclear power plants: (1) operating fuel and (2) spent fuel (nuclear waste). Operating fuel sits inside the containment vessel, which is typically made of feet of reinforced concrete and inches of stainless steel. These vessels require cranes and other heavy equipment to disassemble. As Time’s article pointed out, they are hard to get into because they are designed to be hard to breach. Moreover, reactor fuel is extremely heavy and in metallic form. It would require disassembly (or cutting apart) and careful placement around high explosives even to make a dirty bomb. The notion that security forces would be unable to retake the plant or kill the terrorists (for example, using poison gas or napalm) during the several hours it would take terrorists to do all this is simply incredible.

A slightly more realistic risk is theft or use of the spent fuel stored outside the plant’s containment vessel. Yet here again, the obstacles to successful terrorist activity are overwhelming. Like the operating fuel, the spent fuel is extremely heavy and in metallic form. Terrorists would have to raise it out of the storage pools, with the aid of heavy equipment or at least crude pulleys, cut it apart, place it meticulously around shaped charges, and detonate it.

Doing so would not produce an atomic explosion. Rather, the terrorists’ goal would be to disburse the dangerously radioactive material as widely as possible by means of a massive conventional explosion. That task, however, would be similar to vaporizing and disbursing bars of lead or chunks of the weights used to “pump iron.” It’s unclear to this writer whether such a plan is possible even in theory, or whether the terrorists would have to grind the nuclear fuel to a powder first—a task that would require special equipment and take additional time.

The bottom line with respect to fuel is that building a dirty bomb on site is simply not feasible in the time that terrorists would have before security backup forces arrived. While extracting the nuclear fuel and assembling such a bomb, they would be vulnerable to destruction by all sorts of weapons designed for use in confined space, including poison gas, napalm, and concussion grenades. The technical and military obstacles are so overwhelming that no thinking terrorist likely would even attempt such a move.

A final potential risk, in theory, is terrorists stealing the nuclear material. Yet, here again, the same insuperable obstacles arise. Nuclear material, whether operating or waste, is extremely heavy and comes in metallic form in large pieces. Terrorists would have to raise it out of the reactor pit or cooling pools, cut pieces off, transport them to a waiting vehicle, and make a getaway—all before backup security forces arrived. Then they would have to disappear from the roads quickly, as the radioactivity of their “loot” would provide a unique signature visible from the air with proper equipment. Unless security is totally asleep at the switch, the chances of all this happening are next to nil.

Three conclusions derive from this analysis. First, new plants with the new meltdown-proof design will have virtually no risk of nuclear-plant terrorism. Second, the risk for existing nuclear plants can be reduced to the vanishing point, if not eliminated, by technical measures, quite apart from the effectiveness of first-line security forces. Third and finally, if proper precautions are taken, the public need have no more fear of terrorism at nuclear power plants than at power plants of other design.

What are the necessary precautions? There are four. First, the new meltdown-proof design must be used (and should be mandated by law) for all new nuclear power plants and existing power plants when decommissioned and reconstructed. Second, retrofitting of automatic, hidden and hardened meltdown-prevention technology should begin immediately (if it hasn’t already), at each regularly scheduled maintenance shutdown of each existing plant. Third, security forces should consider carefully the defense advantages offered by the confined spaces of nuclear power plants and should provide themselves with appropriate weaponry, including poison gas, napalm, and concussion grenades. Finally, as Time’s article hinted, the National Guard or other military forces should be commissioned to provide backup security, on standby alert, for every nuclear power plant without a meltdown-proof design.

All these precautions are feasible and desirable. With them, nuclear power will present no greater danger (of terrorism or otherwise) than power derived from gas, oil, or coal. Indeed, future nuclear power plants, with the new meltdown-proof design, will pose virtually no special risk of vulnerability to terrorism. With these precautions, the public will be freed at last from irrational fears of this modern, clean energy source. It will therefore (one hopes) think twice before condemning itself to a life of smoggy skies, acid rain, asthma, and lakes, rivers and fish polluted by coal-produced mercury.


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20 June 2005

Coal versus Nuclear Power: Do You Like to Breathe?


A few weeks ago, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) tried to break the name-calling deadlock in Congress by beginning a serious, bipartisan effort to forge an effective national energy policy. Various bills on that subject are now moving through Congress. In their joint proposal, Lieberman and McCain seem to understand that only two options can support our present rate of national energy consumption while avoiding foreign control over sources: coal and nuclear power.

Of these two options, nuclear energy is by far the cleaner. You don’t need scientific instruments to see harm from burning coal; all you need is your nose and eyes.

Every time I cross the Mississippi from West to East, I note the change in the color, character and smell of the air. Every time I fly over St. Louis, I can smell sulfur dioxide from its power plants as I pass over at 30,000 feet. Three years ago, a friend of mine broke off purchasing retirement property near Chama, New Mexico, after finding the whole Chama Valley filled with coal pollution from the huge Four Corners Power Plant 100 miles upwind.

Of course China is today’s poster child for massive coal pollution. While in Hong Kong recently, I could hardly see across the strait, which had been clear as crystal fifteen years previously. The culprit was coal pollution from China. Friends who’ve lived in Hong Kong for decades said the pollution has been constant (except for long industrial holidays) and consistently getting worse for several years.

What most people don’t realize about the tradeoff between coal and nuclear energy is that environmental damage from coal is already horrific. Acid rain, mercury pollution of rivers and fish, an explosion of asthma in our cities, and global warming—these are only a few of the present consequences of burning the dirtiest fuel known to mankind. Even animal dung, a fuel used in the third world, burns more cleanly than coal; dung lacks the sulfur and heavy metals, like mercury, that so harm the biosphere.

While the probability of a serious nuclear accident is so small you need scientific notation to express it, the probability of human and environmental damage from burning coal is 100%. As I write these words, burning coal is polluting our air, damaging our children’s lungs and central nervous systems, and destroying our fish, trees and wildlife.

Under these circumstances, I’ve often scratched my head wondering why our nation so prefers the dirtiest fuel to one of the cleanest. France makes 77% of its electricity from nuclear power; Japan about 34%. For us—the nation that invented nuclear power—the fraction is far less, about 21%. Why?

The best answer, I think, is the persistent and colossal political stupidity of the American nuclear industry. The industry has shot itself in the foot so often with senseless opposition to sensible safety regulation that it’s a wonder it has any toes left. The recent near-disaster at the Davis-Besse power plant in Ohio is just the latest in long string of industry blunders.

It seems to me that four simple principles could undo much of the industry’s self-inflicted damage and allay the public’s present irrational fear of nuclear power. First, regulators should have nothing to do with promoting nuclear power or the nuclear industry. (Once the American public fully recognizes what coal is doing to our health, our skies, and our waters—let alone global warming—nuclear power should promote itself.) Therefore nuclear regulation should have a single, paramount goal: safety.

A simple invariable rule could avoid any real risk of disaster and reassure the public of the safety of a nuclear industry properly run. Expressed in lay terms, that rule would be: “When in doubt, shut it down.” If something goes wrong with a nuclear power plant—like the massive, unexplained corrosion in the containment cap at Davis-Besse—the rational response is to shut the plant down, find the cause of the problem and fix it.

A rule like that, enforced without fail by on-site federal regulators, could insure against any Chernobyl ever occurring here. In any event, new, safer designs for nuclear reactors make a Chernobyl-style meltdown all but impossible. Even if a catastrophic failure causes the fuel rods to melt, the new designs use gravity to divide the molten nuclear fuel into small, separate containers of sub-critical size, thereby stopping the chain reaction and preventing further meltdown.

A second principle of proper regulation is expertise. I suspect that at least some of the near-disasters of the American nuclear power industry have been caused by managers running nuclear power plants although they were trained primarily in running coal or oil-fired plants. That's a bit like asking an ox-cart driver from the third world to pilot an F-22. No one without a degree in nuclear engineering and at least ten years experience in operating nuclear plants should have his or her fingers anywhere near the "on-off" switch for such a plant. Any sensible regulatory law should say so. Maybe all nuclear plant managers also should be required, as a condition of licensure, to visit Chernobyl, which the Ukraine is now making into an exotic, if macabre, tourist destination.

Yet strict and intelligent regulation alone is not enough. There will always be motivation to circumvent or thwart safety rules if abiding by them can cause economic loss. That is why the nuclear industry so far has such a frightening safety record: it often did the wrong thing (like failing to shut the Davis-Besse plant down after discovering that an unknown source of corrosion had almost eaten through the containment cap) because doing the right thing would cost money. Therefore a vital third step in any effective regulatory scheme must be removing economic incentives to do the wrong thing.

Providing proper economic incentives for safety is not rocket science. All it would take is a new government-sponsored but privately financed insurance program, guaranteeing that a power utility would be reimbursed if it incurred economic loss from doing the right thing.

For example, consider the Davis-Besse situation. Engineers discovered that corrosion from an unknown source had eaten a hole nearly through the six-inch stainless-steel containment cap that is the public’s last line of defense against a release of radioactivity. Regulators and some engineers wanted to shut the plant down to find out what went wrong. The managers disagreed. They wanted the plant to remain running until the next regularly scheduled maintenance shut-down. Otherwise, they thought, the owners would incur extra (nonbudgeted) expenses for the unscheduled shut-down, start-up, and replacing the power that they’d promised the plant would provide in the interim.

But suppose government-sponsored, industry-funded insurance promised to reimburse the utility’s owners for all of those losses, as long as the cause for the shutdown was not a breach of regulations or the utility’s own fault? Then the owners would not oppose the unscheduled shutdown, and the engineers would take the safer course. Because the cause of the shutdown (unprecedented, unexplained containment-cap corrosion) was not the utility’s fault, the insurance would pay, the public would be safer, and the utility would be made whole.

Insurance like this would spread the economic risk of operating a nuclear power plant and insure that owners would never again make the same mistake as did Davis-Besse’s management: “trading off” prudent engineering practices against potential economic loss. Then the law and economic incentives would both be on the side of safety, along with engineering common sense: “when in doubt, shut it down, find out what went wrong, and fix it.” Insurance of this kind would eliminate the present, perverse economic incentive to “roll the dice” of nuclear disaster by keeping a plant running in ignorance of the causes of unexplained events. It would also allow engineers to make decisions that should be made by engineers, independent of economic influences.

Fourth and finally, a similar approach could reduce public (NIMBY) opposition to the safe disposal of nuclear waste. For example, the law could guarantee retroactive compensation for any property loss or economic loss occasioned by the unlikely event of a release of radioactivity. Compensation could be based on the usual condemnation formula, made retroactive to pre-accident values by using pre-accident evidence. In other words, economic loss occasioned by a release of radioactivity from a waste disposal site would be fully compensated based upon the value of property before the release. (The waste site operator might contribute to the premiums or compensation, as an additional incentive for safety.) For a small town like Yucca NV, the cost of this insurance should be well within the capability of the industry and private markets. The government could be a guarantor of last resort.

With sensible safeguards and insurance programs like these, our nation could realize the promise of abundant, safe and clean nuclear energy, just like France and Japan. The alternative is darker skies, lakes and rivers with sicker and more dangerous waters and fish, and cities that begin to resemble the hell-holes of some of China’s cities today.

Coal mine owners and coal advocates argue that our nation should invest massively in so-called "clean coal" technology. But there is no such thing, and they know it. If there were, private industry would have invested in it long ago, but private industry has refused to do so without government subsidy or guarantees. All there are is promises of future research, with no clear timeline for results. Coal advocates prove this point by their actions: they have repeatedly opposed sensible regulation of air pollution, knowing that there is no way to burn coal without polluting our air.

More fundamentally, there are three basic scientific reasons why chasing "clean coal" is a fool's errand. First, "coal" is a generic term for a bewildering variety of mineral forms, whose makeup varies from region to region and even from batch to batch. "Clean coal" technology made for one region may not work in another and may produce batch-specific air pollution. Second, there is no way to make coal into a clean-burning substance other than a liquid- or gas-phase decomposition process, i.e., dissolving it or burning it. In one case the impurities produce water and ground pollution, in the other air pollution. Finally, dissolving or burning coal, not to mention making the chemicals used in the dissolving or burning process, takes even more energy, which decreases the efficiency of power generation still further and produces yet more water or air pollution.

In contrast, nuclear power produces no air or water pollution in ordinary, safe operation. With sensible regulation and new plant design, there will never be another Chernobyl-style meltdown. The only downside of nuclear power will be a very small amount of radioactive solid waste, which we can dispose of with minimal risk. We can even insure that risk, for the benefit of those who live near nuclear waste disposal sites. The alternative is ever-increasing air, water and ground pollution, asthma in our cities, and a nation in which the clean, fresh smell of spring is a dying memory for all. The choice, ultimately, is ours. Do you like to breathe?



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16 June 2005

The Bolton Nomination


Dear Senators Voinovich and Hagel,

I am writing to you because you have the power and I hope the inclination to stop our nation from making a great mistake. I refer to appointing John Bolton as our Ambassador to the United Nations.

The careful work of your Committee’s staff has established a pattern of recurrent behavior on Bolton’s part: “firing” subordinates who disagree with his judgment, and only later finding out that he had not the right or power to do so. Surely acting before reflecting is not the heart of diplomacy.

Brashness is not Mr. Bolton’s only flaw. His remarks about the United Nations and Kim Jong Il suggest a propensity for name calling as a tool of international diplomacy. Bolton may, as he insists, have had a misunderstanding with the Ambassador to Korea regarding his verbal blast at Kim Jong Il. Yet two things about those remarks stand out. First, there is no rational way to characterize them—particularly in the understated lexicon of diplomacy— as anything other than name calling. Second, his failure to make sure beforehand that the senior field diplomat on the scene was fully comfortable with such a gross departure from normal diplomacy is strong earmark of thoughtlessness.

As the President has stated many times, we are at a crucial point in our nation’s history. We are in a generational struggle with an extremist culture of death. In thirty years it has made air travel—arguably one of the noblest achievements of the human species—far more inconvenient, risky, and expensive than need be. (Like me, both of you are old enough to remember the days when air passengers walked from ticket counters onto airplanes, and the only “security” was a blanket.) During that same period, this struggle has snuffed out countless innocent lives from Paris in the seventies to New York, Bali, and Madrid today. It has already changed our world and, unfortunately, threatens to change it much more drastically.

As the President also has stated, success in this struggle requires international cooperation on a scale and intensity never before achieved. Yet cooperation requires credibility, and the coin of our nation’s credibility, like our currency, has been devalued. We had an overwhelming coalition in the First Gulf War. A decade later, our coalition in the Iraq War is a limited “coalition of the willing.” Our chief allies are slowly backing away, despite early signs of possible success. Will a man like John Bolton re-establish our international credibility and help reverse this decline in crucial international support?

Colin Powell was as cautious, diplomatic and well-respected an emissary as ever served our country. Yet his false report about yellowcake in Niger did our nation’s credibility serious and long-lasting damage. Can you imagine how much greater that damage would have been if the bearer of that false report been a brash and thoughtless name-caller with no distinguished military resume? Is John Bolton’s really the face we want the world’s people to see when they think of America?

One other point is worth making. Our enemies in this generational struggle are notoriously touchy and sensitive. They placed an English author under a lifelong death threat merely because he wrote a novel that displeased them. While the mullahs who issued the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie are no doubt immune to diplomacy, millions of Muslim youth worldwide, deciding whether to join the mullahs or the modern world, are not. A man like Bolton can do our cause incalculable long-term damage on the Islamic “street.”

Of course a President’s choice in personnel matters should be respected. But our Framers gave the Senate the responsibility to advise and consent for a reason. From the moment he took office, diplomacy has been President Bush’s blind spot, despite the success of some of his foreign policy. Isn’t it your constitutional responsibility to help him avoid what might, in the long run, be the most costly diplomatic mistake of his Presidency?



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15 June 2005

Lessons from “Honor” Killings in Germany


A recent article in Der Spiegel reported shocking practices in modern, pacifist Germany. Muslim citizens were being deliberately slaughtered by their own kin. Some died for having the temerity to divorce or leave husbands forced upon them by Islamic tradition against their will. Others committed the unpardonable sin of enjoying love before or outside of marriage. In many cases their killers—their own brothers, husbands, and even fathers—were fiercely proud of these “honor” killings. The killers’ pride and sense of self-righteousness were so brazen that the German justice system, lacking a death penalty, quailed before them.

Reading this story scared me more than anything I have ever read about Al Qaeda or its quest for weapons of mass destruction. As far as German police could tell, these hardened, prideful, unrepentant killers were neither terrorists nor spies. In their own eyes, they were pious, devout Muslim immigrants doing what God wanted them to do.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who has a better sense of culture and history than anyone else in the Bush Administration, has called the War on Terrorists a “generational conflict.” By that phrase I think she meant two things. First, she meant that Western society has abandoned the puerile and ultimately evil notion that war means annihilating one’s enemy. Today we call that practice “genocide” and universally condemn it. So despite our arsenal of thousands of thermonuclear warheads, no one has ever suggested—let alone seriously discussed—a “final solution” to the problem of Muslim extremism. And no one ever will. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorists must be won mainly by winning hearts and minds.

Secretary Rice’s phrase “generational conflict” also has a second meaning. In using the word “generational,” she implied that the war on terrorists would take a long, long time to win. Her rhetoric evoked the Cold War, which took half a century.

Der Spiegel’s article revealed just how prescient Rice was, and just how long the present war may run. The sixtieth anniversary of victory in World War II reminded us of the last century’s horrors. We recalled the death camps, gulags, purges, and mass killings. Yet these orgies of murder were largely impersonal. Tyrants justified mass murder with abstractions—Communism, Nazism, the triumph of the working classes, or German “supremacy” and “order.” But by and large their victims were strangers. Stalin, the greatest mass murderer in human history, explained what made mass murder so easy: a single human death, he said, is a tragedy, but a millions deaths are a statistic.

This same point in reverse is what makes Islamic extremists’ honor killings so terrifying. The motive for murder is still an abstraction: Muslim “purity,” a perverse interpretation of the Quran, or someone’s bizarre view of the word of God. But this time the victims are not strangers; they are the killers’ own mothers, sisters, or wives. The killers murder their own loved ones—sometimes the very mothers who gave them life—for abstractions such as “honor” and “purity.” To accept the logic of these killings is to agree with Al Zarqawi that fellow Muslims also are fair game and can be killed for the cause. Mothers, sisters, cousins, fellow Muslims— anyone—must die for this abstraction.

But logic of terror does not stop there. It does not shrink from the final step. The self must also die for the all-important abstraction. The logic of suicide is just a natural extension of the rule that mothers, sisters, and wives must die for what is “right.” Human life, yours or mine, is worth nothing compared to the all-important abstraction, the “law” of God.

In this distorted moral and psychological universe, it is easy to consider women’s victimhood as no more important than anyone else’s. After all, aren’t women just a fraction of the countless victims of this terrible, murderous abstraction? Is there anything special about them?

Two things suggest an affirmative answer. First, only two human cultures in recent history have made suicide a conscious, deliberate and general policy. The first was Imperial Japan, with its kamikaze suicide pilots. The second is today’s Islamic terrorists, whose parents sometimes display pictures of their “martyred” sons and daughters. In both cases, political and religious leaders successfully exploited abstract notions of honor and piety to get the young to give up their lives. (Kamikaze, after all, means, “divine wind.”)

In both cases, social norms also included suppression of women. Japanese women have come a long way since the Second World War, but they still speak a different language from men. The forms of pronouns and verbs that they use identify their subordinate status. Western men who learn Japanese from women are subjects of mirth, and Western women who learn the language from Japanese men are subjects of confusion and sometimes resentment. As these modern vestiges of linguistic dominance suggest, women in Imperial Japan had virtually no political power or social influence outside the home.

The suppression of women under Islamic extremists is much more dramatic. Under the Taliban, for example, women cannot be educated. They cannot drive; they cannot take work outside the home; and they cannot communicate with men unless their father, brother or husband is present. These rules, although derived from an extreme approach to sexual “morality,” make it virtually impossible for women to exercise any political, moral or social influence inside or outside the home.

Can extreme suppression of women’s influence conduce to a culture of suicide? Mothers spend about nine months in the process of procreation, often enduring discomfort, hardship and pain. Many mothers spend additional years in the care, feeding, nurturing, education and upbringing of their children. For these mothers, children are their lives’ work, as well as their deepest love. To throw that work and love away for an abstraction, however intellectually seductive, would be unthinkable, if only women had the power to prevent it.

In Western cultures they do. Unbeknownst to most Americans, for example, Russian mothers helped stop the Soviets’ misguided adventure in Afghanistan. Afghani fighters’ courage and the shoulder-fired “stinger” missiles that the CIA supplied of course also played their roles. But they only helped build mounting piles of Russian corpses. Soviet leaders might have continued the carnage for decades, just as they had sacrificed millions without hesitation throughout the Communist regime. They did not do so for one reason: Russian mothers of soldiers mounted one of the most effective campaigns of protest, letter-writing, and mass persuasion in Russian history. Their successful campaign, little noted in the West, is perhaps the best example of an effective grass-roots political movement in the entire thousand-year history of Russia under the Czars and commissars. Russian mothers did what they had to do to save their sons, and they prevailed.

Contrast this happy outcome with the picture of the Palestinian mother, who seems to be smiling with her eyes next to a photo of her “martyred” son or daughter. Maybe the smile derives from the $25,000 payment that Saddam Hussein once made to families of suicide bombers. But, try as I might, I cannot believe it. I believe that smile even less than I believe smiles in the old photographs of Soviet children who turned their parents in to Stalin’s purges. The smiles simply don’t ring true.

When I see those veiled faces of the mothers of suicide bombers, I cannot help but think of the men behind and beside them, ready to beat, mutilate or kill them at the slightest transgression. I think of the force and threats of force that daily keep them from driving, reading, getting an education, and communicating with males outside their families. I think of their total personal, social and psychological isolation and their dependence on husbands, fathers, and brothers for virtually all human contact, inside or outside the home. And I wonder what their expressions would be and what they would say if they were really free to speak their minds.

This is what makes Islamic extremism so frightening. It is unlike anything the Western world has seen since the chastity belt fell into disuse.

Stalinist terror came from the top. It was horrible, to be sure, but Soviet citizens resisted. They met in their kitchens and in the parks where electronic bugs could not reach. They produced “Samizdat” newsletters and passed them from hand to hand. Many went to the gulags, some condemned by friends and relatives whom they foolishly trusted. Many perished. But by and large, Soviet citizens could trust their close friends and families even in the maelstrom of terror.

Extreme Islam is fundamentally different. The half of the human race charged by nature with giving and nurturing life is daily terrorized by the other half—all in the name of an abstract and terrible “morality” invented and maintained by the terrorizers. Suppression of women in turn gives the rampant testosterone of youth free reign to fuel fanaticism. Goaded by aging mullahs and self-interested leaders (who, like Osama bin Laden, seem to spare no effort to preserve their own lives), youth cast away their lives like so much garbage, along with the lives of many others, including fellow Muslims. Unlike terror under Stalin and Hitler, Islamic terror does not start with the State; it begins at home. It is “grass roots” terror.

Little illustrates the depth and persistence of the problem better than the “honor” killings in Germany. Muslim immigrants perpetrated these crimes despite their appearance of assimilation into German society and mores. Some of the crimes even touched second and third-generation families. The terror that affects certain Muslim women every day persisted, despite the influence of German secularism, despite the German system of justice, and despite (or perhaps because of) German Christianity, with its reverence for motherhood in the person of the Virgin Mary. Der Spiegel’s story showed just how hard it may be to uproot grass-roots terror directed at women.

If this view of Islamic extremism is correct, the West must learn two lessons to prevail. First, it must respect the wisdom of Rice’s view that the war on terrorists is a generational conflict. It took fifty years to defeat Communism, even though Communist terror came from the top down, and even though many of Russia’s people (especially intellectuals) resisted both passively and actively. In contrast, extreme Islam begins in the home, at the grass roots level. However misguided, the individual commitment that motivates Islamic terror is among the strongest and most fanatic that the world has even seen. It will indeed take generations to change this mindset at the grass roots level, and the task cannot be done without the help of enlightened Muslims who see the need.

The second lesson the West must learn is just as important. Liberation of women from bondage is not just a sideshow; it is part of the main event. Suppressing women and their life-preserving instincts is what makes suicide bombing and mindless jihad possible. Only by nullifying mothers’ influence and making love a sin can extremists turn youthful male testosterone into fuel for machinery of death. If that fuel ever reaches weapons of mass destruction, the resulting juggernaut will make Hitler’s ovens look quaint in comparison. Thinking Muslims and the West must avoid that catastrophe at all costs.

In the end, there is no force on earth more capable of stopping that juggernaut than mothers’ love and the love of free women released from bondage. Therefore Islamic women’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. The female impetus to life, once released, may be the most effective and least costly weapon against terrorists, as well as the most humane. Liberation of women held in bondage by Islamic extremists is thus not just a matter of human rights; it may ultimately be a matter of human survival.



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